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Picnic tables groan under platters of homemade barbecued chicken, cornbread, and collard greens. A vast buffet of yams, corn, rice and okra steams in the early summer afternoon. Cakes and ice cream await dessert. The whole spread, laid out in the elegant backyard of a home in Milton, Massachusetts, has been prepared to welcome visitors from a tiny village in northern Greenland.

It’s late May, 1987, and the 80-year-old sons of explorers Robert Peary and Matthew Henson—named Kali Peary and Anaukaq Henson—are in America to meet their relatives. Matthew Henson’s great-niece, Olive Henson Fulton, cooked the lunch for the family reunion, and cousins and friends all gather on the lawn to welcome their Inughuit kin. After introductions made through an interpreter, Kali, Anaukaq, and their family members have their initial taste of soul food. They proclaim the chicken as tasty as Greenland birds and the ham as sweet as polar bear. 

They play music and dance to ‘80s pop, and the Inughuit sing songs to thank their American hosts. They offer beautiful carvings and other crafts as gifts, while Fulton gives each of the men a combination radio and tape recorder so they can listen to Inuktun radio broadcasts back home. 

As the celebration winds down that evening, Anaukaq’s son remarks, “This has been a great day for our family—perhaps the greatest ever.”

The cookout was the result of a huge, multinational effort—led by an unstoppable Harvard neuroscientist named S. Allen Counter—to bring the Inughuit and American branches of the families together for the first time. Here were living, breathing representatives of Peary and Henson’s history-making expeditions in the flesh. It was a joyous, unforgettable experience—but the occasion also brought up some painful memories and uncomfortable questions.  

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, you’re listening to The Quest for the North Pole. I’m your host, Kat Long, science editor at Mental Floss, and this episode is “Family Reunions.”

In several episodes of the Quest for the North Pole, we looked at how Robert Peary engaged Inughuit assistants to perform essential tasks on his trips, from sewing to building igloos to driving sleds. Women, usually the wives of the hunters, prepared furs for new clothing, and were an omnipresent but underappreciated part of the expeditions.

Perhaps it is not much of a surprise that the men on Peary’s expeditions—including Henson and Peary himself—had relationships with Inughuit women. There’s a long record of Arctic explorers having intimate relationships with women they met in the polar regions, going back at least as far as the British search for the Northwest Passage in the early 19th century. Many of those upright naval men were shocked at the relative freedom between Inuit wives and husbands and the ease with which husbands shared their wives, or wives chose to be intimate with white explorers.

That trend continued into the 20th century with Peary’s quests to reach the Pole. Even before his first expedition, he was already mulling the dynamics between his crews of American men and the Inughuit women they’d encounter in the Arctic. He wrote in his diary, “It is asking too much of masculine human nature to expect it to remain in an Arctic climate, enduring constant hardship, without one relieving feature. Feminine companionship not only causes greater contentment, but as a matter of both mental and physical health and the retention of the top notch of manhood, it is a necessity.” 

Of course, these relationships were not equal. Peary’s arrival in the Inughuit community meant a disruption to their daily life, and sometimes to their family dynamics. Peary was seen as the man who supplied guns, knives, materials for sleds and homes, and many more essential goods. In return, as Kenn Harper mentioned in our previous bonus episode, the Inughuit worked for Peary in whichever capacity he needed. Both Peary and the Inughuit seemingly viewed Peary’s intimate relationships as transactional.

None of this went over well with Josephine Diebitsch Peary, his wife, whom he married in 1888. Though she was just as adventurous as her husband and accompanied him on several of his expeditions, she also raised their two children, Marie and Robert Jr., in Washington when Peary was up North. Josephine was humiliated and crushed when she discovered her husband’s infidelity with an Inughuit woman named Aleqasina, who had given birth to a son, Anaukaq (not to be confused with Henson’s son) in 1900. Aleqasina’s second son, Kali, was born on the S.S. Roosevelt in 1906—suggesting that Peary maintained his connection with her over multiple expeditions. 

For many of his expeditions with Peary, Matthew Henson was single—he and his first wife, Eva Flint, divorced in 1897 and he married his second wife, Lucy Ross, in 1907. He had no children with either woman, but in the 10-year gap between marriages, he had a relationship with an Inughuit woman named Akatingwah. Exactly when they met, and how long the relationship lasted, are unclear, but we do know that it was happening during Peary’s second real attempt at the North Pole from 1905-1906. 

Henson’s son Anaukaq was also born aboard the S.S. Roosevelt in 1906, the year before Henson married Lucy Ross. He may or may not have known he was Anaukaq’s father. Anaukaq’s children and their children are Henson’s only direct descendants.

Akatingwah is photographed during Peary's 1905-1906 expedition, with her baby—possibly Anaukaq, her son with Matthew Henson—tucked into her hood.Robert E. Peary, from Nearest the Pole: A Narrative of the Polar Expedition of the Peary Arctic Club in the S.S. Roosevelt, 1905-1905 // Public Domain

Peary and Henson returned to Greenland in 1908 for their final quest for the Pole. When Peary declared he had done what he had gone there to do, neither man ever returned to Greenland or saw their sons again. Peary’s son Anaukaq died when he was 27. As Kali told the anthropologist Jean Malaurie in 1951, “I never heard a word from my illustrious father, nor did I ever receive any money. All I have of his is a photograph I cut out of a magazine. Yet I remember him very well. We lived on his big ship with our mother, and he was nice to us.”

Malaurie met Kali and Anaukaq Henson while living among the Inughuit, and found the fact that Peary and Henson were their fathers was no secret. Both sons peppered Malaurie for information about their families in America—at the time, Matthew Henson was still alive and living in New York City, but Peary had been dead for over 30 years. Malaurie revealed the existence of Kali and Anaukaq to the rest of the world in his best-selling book, The Last Kings of Thule. But afterwards, seemingly no researchers contacted the explorers’ Inughuit descendants ... until S. Allen Counter went looking for them in the 1980s.

We’ll be right back.

The Amsterdam News called S. Allen Counter “the most interesting man in the world.” Raised in a segregated neighborhood of Boynton Beach, Florida, Counter grew up on the grounds of the tuberculosis hospital where his mother worked. Perhaps that experience influenced his interest in studying medicine: He joined Harvard Medical School as a post-doc, then rose up the ranks as a neurophysiologist. He also conducted field research in the Andes and Amazon basin. As part of a wide-ranging career at the university, in 1981 Counter spearheaded the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, which promotes intercultural awareness. 

During his time as a visiting professor in Sweden, Counter began hearing rumors about Arctic descendants of Peary and Henson from his colleagues. In his book, North Pole Legacy, Counter writes that he read every book and article he could find about the explorers’ descendants, but found nothing beyond “rumor or innuendo.” (Apparently he missed Malaurie’s account.) He decided to go to Greenland to investigate—a task that involved asking the Danish and U.S. governments for permission to fly to Thule Air Base, the northernmost American military base in the world, and then helicoptering to the tiny village of Moriussaq.

And there, he met Anaukaq Henson and his large family, who assumed Counter was their relative because of his dark skin. A few weeks later, he met Kali and his family in a village about 40 miles away. Counter discovered that for generations, the Greenland descendants remembered and retold the stories of Peary’s and Henson’s time in their communities. All were proud of their American heritage, especially Anaukaq, because the whole community held Matthew Henson in extremely high regard. They also expressed a strong interest in meeting their American half-siblings, cousins, nieces, and nephews in the U.S.

Counter decided to make it happen. He called the plan the North Pole Family Reunion.

He promised Anaukaq and Kali that he would find out as much about their American relatives as possible. When he returned to the U.S. and cold-called members of the American Hensons and Pearys, they had opposite reactions.

Henson’s great-niece Olive Henson Fulton and her family were ecstatic. As a young girl, Fulton told him, she had been kicked out of class for telling everyone about her great uncle who had reached the North Pole. Her teacher had thought she was lying. The insult made her determined to share Henson’s story with as many people as she could. When Counter told her of his discovery, she couldn’t wait to welcome Anaukaq and his family to Boston.  

The Pearys reacted … differently. A family spokesman seemed to suspect Counter of trying to call Peary’s accomplishments into question, or worse, stir up the bitter controversy between Peary and Frederick Cook over who conquered the North Pole first. They wanted nothing to do with their Arctic relatives. Edward Peary Stafford, the explorer’s grandson, later told The Washington Post that the family was well aware of Peary’s infidelity, but that “obviously, it's not something you talk about because it was very hurtful to my grandmother.”

Stafford added, “‘Henson and Peary were up there at one time for four years … it's a miracle there was only one descendant of each. Human beings are human. You can't send a man into a situation like that and expect otherwise.” 

Despite that lackluster response, Counter went ahead with the reunion plans. And some of the Pearys did join the festivities. When Counter bypassed the family spokesman and called Robert Peary, Jr. directly, Robert and his wife agreed to a visit with his half-brother Kali and his family in their home in Maine. Two distant Peary relatives attended a reception with the Hensons and Arctic visitors before the big cookout. 

In the days following the party, Kali and Anaukaq attended a lavish banquet in their honor at Harvard University, then traveled to important sites in their fathers’ lives. They toured the Explorers Club and Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, to which Henson belonged; they visited Henson’s birthplace in Nanjemoy, Maryland, and Peary’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. Anaukaq paid his respects to his father at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, where Henson was buried in 1955. At each stop, throngs of dignitaries and invited guests welcomed the visitors and jostled to shake their hands, while newspaper reporters and photographers clicked away.

Their whirlwind tour lasted two weeks, after which the Inughuit returned to their home villages in Greenland. Sadly, less than a month later, Anaukaq died of cancer.

Counter continued his efforts to share Matthew Henson’s story and give him the recognition he deserved. Before the North Pole Family Reunion took place, he had launched a campaign to have Henson’s remains removed from Woodlawn Cemetery and placed next to Peary’s in Arlington National Cemetery, an honor he felt was befitting a co-discoverer of the North Pole—and to honor Henson’s wishes. He promised Anaukaq that if he succeeded, his children and grandchildren would be there to see it.

Matthew Henson's grave is now next to Robert Peary's final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery.Tim1965, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Counter wasn’t the first one to try to make this happen: In 1966, Senator Joseph Tydings, a democrat from Maryland, introduced a bill to remove Henson’s remains to Arlington. Evidently, it went nowhere. In 1985, Counter had written to President Ronald Reagan and the military, asking for permission for the reburial, and was denied. He then wrote to the first lady, cabinet secretaries, and the media, which got behind the idea, especially after Anaukaq’s and Kali’s visits to their fathers’ graves. In October 1987, the Department of the Army changed its mind and granted Counter’s request. A group of Henson relatives and John H. Johnson, the publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines and longtime admirer of Henson, joined Counter in organizing and planning the undertaking. 

They chose April 6, 1988—the 79th anniversary of the date Peary claimed to have reached the North Pole—for the ceremony reinterring Henson and his wife Lucy, who had passed away in 1968. Three of Anaukaq’s sons and two grandsons, and Olive Henson Fulton, represented the Henson family. Among the 200 invited guests was civil rights leader Dorothy Height, a good friend of Lucy’s, who delivered her eulogy. Members of the Peary family were invited but couldn’t make it, according to The New York Times. NASA astronaut Guy S. Bluford, the first Black American in space, delivered a salute to the explorer who came before him, next to the granite headstone featuring a likeness of Henson. The new burial plot was right next to Peary’s resting place, marked by its huge, globe-shaped monument. 

Speaking for the Inughuit branch of the family, Anaukaq’s youngest son Kitdlaq said, “Now the old friends are together again. They can talk about old times.”

The Quest for the North Pole is hosted by me, Kat Long.

This episode was researched and written by me, with fact-checking by Austin Thompson. The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy and Tyler Klang. The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan.

For transcripts, a glossary, and to learn more about this episode, visit mentalfloss.com/podcast.

The Quest for the North Pole is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss. For more podcasts from iHeartRadio, check out the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.